Column – The Suffolk model: one to be envied or avoided?

Published 6:05 pm Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Isle of Wight in 2024 feels a lot like Suffolk in 1974 — at a crossroads, a choice between suburbia and a rural, quaint bedroom community that enjoys its proximity to metropolitan Tidewater without succumbing to its excesses.

Mayor Mike Duman, who spoke eloquently of Suffolk’s progress in his State of the City address earlier this month, clearly likes the course his city chose. If growth and economic prosperity are the criteria, Suffolk unquestionably is a model to follow, its population having more than doubled to 100,000-plus in 50 years, with more concrete poured every day.

Isle of Wight’s elected leaders — and, as important, the staff who advise them — have chosen the same course, as has Smithfield, its signature town and economic anchor. Depending on one’s goals for this community, a case can be made for Suffolk envy.

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My perspective is sound, having lived in both Suffolk and Smithfield and still heavily invested in businesses in both. There’s much to like about both communities, and I’d pick Suffolk in a heartbeat over any other Hampton Roads city. But at my core, I’m a small-town guy, and Smithfield and Isle of Wight offer just the right quality of life for my wife and me.

Isle of Wight citizens are less enthralled than their elected leaders with the Suffolk model, most having driven Route 17 or Route 58 during rush hour. They visit Downtown Suffolk and are reminded what they love about Downtown Smithfield. They turn on the 11 o’clock news — where if it bleeds, it leads — and rarely hear their community’s name associated with the latest mayhem.  

For many who live here, residential rooftops, warehouses and big-box retail stores don’t define a community’s success. Lack of those things is why they moved here, or in the case of natives, why they chose to stay.

They also understand that once the growth train is rolling down the tracks, there’s no stopping it.

In Suffolk, the better metaphor might be a runaway 18-wheeler on a mountain interstate. A citizen uprising unlike anything this scribe has observed was no match for the blue blazers from Virginia Beach and Chesapeake who told the Suffolk City Council that a massive warehouse complex was needed in the heart of the city to support the region’s economic engine, the Port of Virginia.

The same blue blazers (they don’t even bother to wear ties anymore) were at last month’s Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors to make the same case for a less massive, but still disruptive, warehouse complex abutting the Windsor town limits. If you want to understand the balance of power in Isle of Wight, tune in again next month and watch whose side your elected supervisors take when the warehouses come up for another vote. 

Prediction: For three supervisors, the blue blazers, the county administrator and Isle of Wight’s Economic Development Authority will trump the Windsor Town Council, the Isle of Wight and Windsor planning commissions and the good people of central Isle of Wight County who’ve seen modern Suffolk and, with due respect, prefer not to become it.  


Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is